Introduction to the Gospel of John: a commentary
Who is Jesus of Nazareth? This is the fundamental question which the Gospel
of John poses for us. John develops his gospel to answer that question
using compelling evidence and eye-witness testimony.
John, the youngest of the twelve apostles, wrote his gospel late in
life, around 100 AD, in the city of Ephesus, a Greek-speaking center of
commerce and culture. By that time the vast majority of Christians were
no longer converts from Jewish communities, but people who lived in a world
dominated by the culture, thought, and worldview of Greece and Rome. John
appealed to their powers of reason and reflection to consider who Jesus
claimed to be.
John’s style and focus is very different from the other three gospel
accounts by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark presents a clear-cut account
of the facts of Jesus’ life and ministry; his style is plain, direct, and
literal. Matthew focuses on a systematic account of Jesus’ teaching. Luke
describes Jesus as the friend of all. In contrast to these three, John’s
gospel is more reflective, profound, and spiritual. Augustine of Hippo
likens John to the eagle who can soar higher than any other bird, because
John’s “spiritual understanding compared to the eagle, has elevated his
preaching higher, and far more sublimely, than the other three” (in his
Harmony of the Gospels 1.6.9). John had 70 years from Jesus’ death
and resurrection to reflect upon what Jesus had said and done. He goes
beyond the literal message and historical facts to help people understand
the deeper spiritual meaning of Jesus himself – including his teaching,
life, and miracles.
and seven signs
John carefully selected seven statements and seven signs to answer
the question, “Who is Jesus and how can we be certain that his claims are
true?” These statements each begin with the declaration “I am:”
In the Bible, no other person but Jesus dared to speak in this manner,
not even Moses or the prophets who spoke in the name of God. Jesus claims
what only God himself can claim. He is the source of life itself, and he
has power not only to create, but to sustain, and restore life as well.
Jesus’ “I am” statements echo the very name which God revealed to Moses
in the burning bush at the foot of Mount Horeb.
“I am the bread of life” (6:35, 41, 48-51)
“I am the light of the world” (8:12, 9:5)
“I am the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9)
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep”
“I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)
“I am the true vine” (15:1,5)
13 Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel
and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they
ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses,
"I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM
has sent me to you.'" 15 God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people
of Israel, `The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the
God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': this is my name
for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus
When people encountered Jesus they recognized that he spoke and acted with
extraordinary power and authority. When Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews,
met Jesus, he exclaimed: “No one can do these signs that you do, unless
God is with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus recognized that Jesus’ authority
and power came from God. When Nathaniel first heard about Jesus, he refused
to believe that the Messiah could come from Nazareth. When Jesus spoke
words of life and revelation to him, Nathaniel recognized Jesus’ true identity:
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49).
Jesus remarked that Nathaniel would come to see even greater things – “heaven
opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of
man” (John 1:51).
“Signs and wonders”
Jesus claimed to be more than a great prophet, teacher, and miracle
worker. His signs demonstrate the power and presence of God among his people.
When Jesus speaks God speaks. When Jesus acts God acts. He performs the
same “signs and wonders” which God did when he brought the people of Israel
through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the promised land
When the people could find no food in the barren wilderness, Moses gave
them manna for their daily provision. Jesus offers himself as the “bread
of life” and the “bread from heaven” which sustains us on our journey towards
heaven. This bread from heaven produces eternal life within us.
Moses gave the people water to drink when they were dying of thirst
in the wilderness. Jesus offers himself as a river of living water
that never runs dry and that produces everlasting life for those who drink
from its fountain.
When the people of Israel were lost in the wilderness, God directed
them by means of a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.
Jesus is the one true source of light that dispels the darkness of sin
and unbelief and shows us the true path to everlasting life with God.
Seven signs reveal
Jesus’ nature and power
John singles out seven signs which Jesus performed because they reveal
his glory and point to a deeper spiritual reality of who Jesus claims to
be – “the Christ (the Anointed Messiah), the Son of God” (John 20:30).
These signs reveal Jesus’ supernatural mastery over the created material
world. They demonstrate that Jesus is master over nature, disease, sickness,
and death. They show that he had power to create, restore, and make new
again what has been broken, lost, or destroyed. These signs point to a
power and a kingdom that is greater than the sum of all earthly powers
and empires past and present. They point to God who is all-powerful and
merciful, all-wise and loving, all-knowing and at the same time compassionate.
These signs not only reveal God’s presence, they demonstrate God’s power
to heal, restore, and give life. Jesus came to restore a broken, sinful
humanity and to raise it to everlasting life with God.
Jesus performed his first sign when he changed water into wine at a wedding
With a word of command Jesus healed the son of a royal official (4:43-54).
Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (5:1-15).
Jesus multiplied seven loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand people
who gathered to hear him (6:1-15).
Jesus walked on water and calmed the waves to rescue his disciples caught
in a life-threatening storm at sea (6:16-24).
Jesus healed a man born blind, giving him sight (9:1-12).
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after Lazarus was in the tomb for three
John concludes his description of the seven signs with the statement
that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which
are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have
life in his name” (John 20:30-31). John’s whole purpose in writing his
gospel account is to help us grow in faith and knowledge of who Jesus truly
is, the Son of God who died for our sins and who rose victorious over death
so that we might have abundant life and be united with him and the Father
Jesus’ hour of
triumph and glory
The culmination of Jesus’ life and mission is what John’s Gospel calls
Jesus’ “hour of glory.” This turning point occurs shortly before the feast
of Passover, just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, when Jesus
"The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. ..Now
is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'?
No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Now is the judgment of this
world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am
lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to
show by what death he was to die. (John 12:23,27,31-32 )
This “hour” marks a definite point in time when Jesus will fulfill the
mission he has been given by the Father. This hour of glory is Jesus’ crucifixion.
John describes Jesus’ death on the cross as his exaltation – his being
lifted up on high. His atoning death cancels the debt of sin, defeats the
power of Satan, the present ruler of the world, and brings pardon, freedom,
and new life to all who accept him as Lord and Savior.
On the night before he died, Jesus prays and explains to his disciples
how his obedience to his Father’s will results in glory for his Father
and the reward of everlasting life for all who believe in him.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to
heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the
Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to
give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life,
that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me
to do” (John 17:1-4).
The author of the
John had a prominent role in the life and ministry of Jesus. He was
part of the inner circle of disciples (Mark 3:17; 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Acts
1:13; Galatians 2:9) along with Peter and James who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration
on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elijah. Unlike the other disciples who fled
when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemani, John follows Jesus
and waits in the courtyard of Caiphas, the high priest who was to charge
Jesus with blasphemy and insurrection. John was also with Jesus at the
foot of the cross on Golgatha. As Jesus is dying on the cross, he entrusts
his mother into John’s care and he takes her into his own home. John was
the first apostle who witnessed Jesus’ empty tomb and who professed that
Jesus had truly risen (John 20:2-10). He was present at the last appearance
of Jesus before his departure to his Father in heaven. John states that
he bore witness to what he had seen, heard, touched, and experienced firsthand
in his encounter with Jesus (John 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3). John’s relationship
with Jesus was marked by a special friendship, familiarity, and intimacy
not seen in the other disciples. In the Gospel of John he is described
as the one whom Jesus loved, and the one who sat at Jesus’ breast
(John 13:23-25; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20).
reflections from early church sources on John’s Gospel
Irenaeus (130-200 AD), bishop of Lyons, received his account of John, the
disciple of the Lord, from Polycarp (69-155 AD), bishop of Smryna, who
knew John and had conversed with him. Irenaeus wrote: “John, the disciple
of the Lord, who also leant upon his breast, himself also published the
gospel in Ephesus, when he was living in Asia.”
Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) was a teacher, scripture scholar, and
head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt. He took refuge in
Jerusalem during the persecution by the emperor Severus in 201-202. He
states that John, who wrote the last account, “composed a spiritual gospel.”
“Last of all, John perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain
in the gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Holy Spirit,
composed a spiritual gospel.”
The Muratorian Canon, a document written in Rome and dating 180-200
AD, contains a list of the books of the New Testament. It explains how
the Gospel of John came to be written:
The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow
disciples and bishops pleaded with him, he said, “Fast with me for three
days, and then we'll tell each other whatever may be revealed to any of
us.” That very night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that
John should write everything in his own name as they remembered them.
As a result, although different points are taught to us in the various
books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers.
In all of them under [the influence of] one imperial Spirit, everything
is told which concerns the Lord’s birth, his suffering, his resurrection,
his conduct with his disciples, and his twofold coming: the first in the
humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory
of royal power, which is still in the future.
What a marvel it is, then, that John presents these various things
so consistently in his letters, too! He says in his own person, “What we
have seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, and our hands have handled,
that have we written.” For in this way he testifies that he is not only
the eye-witness, but also the hearer. Besides that, he is also the historian
of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.
Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340), a scholar and church historian, comments
on the difference between John’s Gospel and the other three accounts written
by Matthew, Mark, and Luke :
Matthew at first preached to the Hebrew people. The day came when he
had to leave them and to go to other nations. Before he went he set down
his story of the life of Jesus in Hebrew, “and thus compensated those whom
he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.” After Mark and Luke
had published their gospels, John was still preaching the story of Jesus
orally. “Finally he proceeded to write for the following reason. The three
gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his
hands too, they say that he fully accepted them and bore witness to their
truthfulness; but there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done
by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.... They therefore say that
John, being asked to do it for this reason, gave in his gospel an account
of the period which had been omitted by the earlier evangelists, and of
the deeds done by the Savior during that period; that is, of the deeds
done before the imprisonment of John the Baptist.... John therefore records
the deeds of Christ which were performed before the Baptist was cast into
prison, but the other three evangelists mention the events which happened
after that time.... The Gospel according to John contains the first acts
of Christ, while the others give an account of the latter part of his life”
(Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 5:24).
Augustine of Hippo (345-430 AD ), in his Harmony of the Gospels,
contrasts John with the other three evangelists – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
In the four Gospels, or rather in the four books of the one Gospel,
Saint John the apostle, not undeservedly in respect of his spiritual understanding
compared to the eagle, has elevated his preaching higher and far more sublimely
than the other three… For the other three evangelists walked with the Lord
on earth but this evangelist, as if he disdained to walk on the earth,
just as in the very opening of his discourse he thundered on us, soared
not only above the earth and above the whole compass of air and sky, but
even above the whole army of angels and the whole order of invisible powers,
and reached to him by whom all things were made, saying, “in the beginning
was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
(in his Harmony of the Gospels 1.6.9)
Go to | Gospel
of John | Daily
Readings & Meditations | Words
of Life |
(c) 2010 Don Schwager